Colca Canyon, Peru
The bird, wings extended, surveys the jagged landscape below. It glides through the air so gracefully, hardly moving its body. It acts like a king looking over its realm.
The Andean condor makes a slow arc of a turn hundreds of metres away and comes back towards me faster than expected. It looks so majestic but does it realise it’s one of the largest flying birds in the world?
Probably not. Titles like that are unimportant – especially right now. It’s feeding time and the focus is on the ground, the bird’s eyes searching for carrion.
Here at Colca Canyon, in southern Peru near the city of Arequipa, the Andean condors are the most famous residents. Each day they emerge from their nests and begin their airborne circles as they start their feeding near the Cruz del Condor lookout.
They’re not the only ones who have found the potential for food in the rich canyon, though. Centuries ago, Colca Canyon was the heart of the Incan agricultural industry.
Terraces, carved into either side of the great crevasse, were where crops were grown to feed thousands and thousands of Incans across the empire.
Different levels of the canyon had slightly different conditions and so the fruit, vegetables and grains were planted in different spots so they would grow better.
So much food was grown here by the Incans that it couldn’t all be consumed at once. Much of it was saved until later – which was actually a system that was in place across the whole Incan civilisation to safeguard for years of poor crops.
But here in Colca Canyon was one of the largest collections of supplies. Ancient storerooms were built across this whole area… storerooms which in the language of the Incans were called ‘colcas’, hence the name.
Today the region is still a large centre for agriculture and, when you visit, you can see the terraces still cut into the hillsides. Very little has been done to alter them over the years so most of them are at least 600 years old.
In fact, much of Colca Canyon feels similar to the days when the Incas toiled on the land to feed their people.
Tours to Colca Canyon
This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Peru but there are just a handful of places where the canyon feels busy. At Cruz del Condor each morning, a long line of buses arrive with tourists on day trips from Arequipa but they all disperse once the birds have flown further afield.
I have decided to spend a couple of days on a small tour which has a mixture of hiking, cycling and driving to get a sense of the region.
There are a few different ways you can take a tour to Colca Canyon. Hopefully one of these suggestions will be the kind of thing you’re looking for:
Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world – twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US (the deepest canyon in the world is the Cotahuasi Canyon in a nearby part of Peru). The natural beauty is definitely one of the main attractions and it’s everywhere around me.
The sheer rock cliffs diving deep down to a small river running through the bottom of the ravine; the patchwork of colours in the fields cut into the slopes; the snow-topped mountains in the distance; and the glowing sun which traverses its way across it all.
Of course, there is more than just nature here and the small communities through the Colca Canyon region live harmoniously with this nature, taming it where necessary with a sustainability they learned from their ancestors of centuries ago.
Small children with their dogs smile at us as we pass. Their horses graze unconcerned and I chuckle at the fences built from cacti to keep the animals in their place.
For the Andean condors circling above, it probably looks just the same as it always has. An Incan storeroom, a natural agricultural factory and a provider for its residents.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN AREQUIPA
I would suggest basing yourself in Arequipa to explore the area. There’s lots of great accommodation in the historic centre.
I would recommend Friendly AQP as a really comfortable backpacker option.
There are lots of affordable hotels but I think El Portal De San Lázaro is one of the best value.
For something more upmarket, Palla Boutique Hotel is beautiful and has an incredible rooftop!
And when it comes to luxury, I think the nicest hotel in the city is CIRQA – Relais & Châteaux.